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While their classmates were writing papers and working on problem sets, a small group of Brown students were making high-stakes decisions that could win or lose them hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars. Since then, the stakes of the game have risen — several young alums who once hunched over cards in Faunce House or stayed up late into the night playing online poker have gone professional, some winning millions in just a few years.

Many of the professional card sharks who emerged from Brown got their start in the Blue Room Game — a friendly poker game that met in the basement of Faunce House in the early 2000s. According to freelance writer Ryan Goldberg '05, a regular at the meetings, the game reached its peak during the 2004-05 school year and began to decline after 2007.

Players met four times each week, with the highest turnout on Friday afternoons, Goldberg said. Of the 30 or so players who showed up to the more popular games, most were men, but a small group of women played regularly.

Even though the Blue Room Game was serious training for intelligent and ambitious young poker players, Goldberg remembers its lighthearted environment.

"It was serious, but no one was overly intense," Goldberg said. "It was quite social."

Jared Okun '07, who ran the game from 2005 to 2007, quickly rose up the ranks of the professional poker world after graduating from Brown. A double-concentrator in computer science and economics, Okun said he first decided to check out the Blue Room Game after hearing about it through the Brown Daily Jolt.

At the time, Okun didn't have much experience with poker. He played occasionally with friends during high school, but after he started attending the Blue Room Game his sophomore year, he got serious about it. That led to 10 to 30 hours of online play each week and, eventually, an income of $100 to $200 an hour.

Later in his time at Brown, Okun took a course on the theory of poker in the Division of Applied Mathematics. Bill Gazes, a professional player, lectured in one of the classes and hit it off with Okun. The two stayed in touch, and during Okun's senior year, Gazes offered to back him financially in tournaments while Okun was still in school.

At that point, Okun had to make a decision: He could either pursue a conventional career in finance or try his hand in the high-stakes world of professional poker.

"I was applying to jobs on Wall Street — trading jobs. And right at the beginning of that process, I decided I had the offer from Bill, and it was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Okun said. "I could try it now when I'm young, see if I did well. If I liked it, I could do that. If not, after a year or two, I could get a regular job."

Okun's parents were not happy with his decision, but they have "grown more accustomed to it in the last couple years," he said — possibly a side effect of the more than $800,000 that he has earned through tournaments and cash games.

Okun now lives in a condo in Las Vegas with his girlfriend, Brett Abarbanel '06, whom he met through the Blue Room Game. He likes to alternate his long hours of play between casinos and online games, "just to keep it fresh." When he plays online, he said, he usually starts at night — taking advantage of the time difference that leaves his East Coast competitors bleary-eyed while his own judgment is still sharp.

While still at Brown, Okun introduced his mentor, Gazes, to a friend, Scott Seiver '07, a fellow computer science and economics concentrator and a Blue Room Game regular. Just as he did with Okun, Gazes offered to pay Seiver's entry fees to online and live tournaments while Seiver was still at Brown, according to the Brown Alumni Magazine.

Since then, Seiver has earned over $2 million through tournaments and cash games, the magazine reported. Seiver did not respond to The Herald's requests for an interview.

Surprisingly, the most successful poker player to emerge from Brown wasn't a Blue Room regular. Isaac Haxton '08, a philosophy concentrator, left Brown to earn over $4 million in tournaments and cash games, according to the Brown Alumni Magazine.

Goldberg said Haxton, who did not respond to inquiries from The Herald, chose to hone his skills in online poker rooms instead of playing with other students in Faunce.

Brown isn't the only college to spawn a large number of high-earning young players. Other Ivy League schools, particularly Princeton, have also yielded a few successful poker pros, Goldberg said.

To the extent Ivy League grads are more successful in professional poker than their counterparts, it's not necessarily because they are smarter. A crucial ingredient in their success is access to extra spending money, according to Mike Graves '06, a Blue Room Game regular who earned over $700,000 and a bracelet at the World Series of Poker in 2007 — the most prestigious honor a professional player can receive.

Graves won the massive payout after his first year at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, where he is currently a medical student.

Graves chose to pursue medicine instead of professional poker because he has wanted to be a doctor for years. "It's something I've idealized for a long time," he said.

The uncertainty of professional poker also made Graves hesitate to commit to it as a career.

According to Goldberg, poker reached the peak of its popularity in 2003 through televised tournaments and has since settled into a "mature stage." Getting enormous payouts isn't as easy as it used to be, he said. For professionals to continue to earn as much as they used to, they now have to travel to tournaments outside of the country.

"The long-term sustainability of poker is not exactly there," Graves said. "By natural selection, the games online will get tougher and tougher."

 




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